Mind Your Language

Monday, April 13, 2009 7:20 | Filed in Language, Life, The Pickards

The way in which we use language is important. It not only enables us to communicate ideas, and determines how effectively those ideas are communicated, but it also allows people to judge us. Now I am a firm believer in that the most important thing is whether or not you communicate your message effectively, but I will also be judging you on the way you say it.


It’s also rude. It’s difficult to read, and it implies that the convenience of the person doing the typing is more important than readability, as if someone is telling you that “my opinions are so important that I don’t have the time to consider your convenience”.

At least, that’s how I judge every comment I find typed completely in block capitals. If you really can’t be bothered with correct capitalisation or punctuation, why should you expect anyone else will want to bother with your opinion — the impression given is that your opinions and arguments will probably have been constructed in the same haphazard and slapdash factor.

The comedian David Mitchell makes a similar point about judging people who use poor spelling and grammar here.

I have to say that I think this depends on precisely what the problem with your grammar and spelling is. I am not going to object to the odd spelling mistake or typo in a personal blog environment, nor am I ever going to complain about a conversational style, because to me blogs are an informal environment and that is perfectly reasonable. Of course, as that is my style, and I am prone to the odd typo (but hopefully not too many), I was bound to say that, wasn’t I?

But I still have my own little bugbears. I object to people using “they’re”, “there” and “their” incorrectly. I object to the grocers’ plural. That doesn’t necessarily stop me taking the piss myself, mind you, as one of my relatives who had just scored 100% on a their / they’re / there test on facebook found out…

I think anyone who does this test is just wasting they're time going over their to the application and filling it in. There spending they're time doing that when they could be doing something better. So their. (flickr)

But all that was just disguising a serious point. If you don’t use the right word, then many people, myself included, will judge you on this basis, and what is worse, we will also judge your opinions more harshly. If you can’t work out which word you should have used their, then we will ask ourselves whether you are likely to have made similar mistakes when constructing your arguments or opinions. We will tend to judge them more harshly.

And then there’s swearing and txtspk. Personally, I don’t object to text-speak acronyms too much, and will now and again use some of them — LOL, ROFL and IMHO being the most common, although I have also succumbed to OTOH, FWIW and IANAL (particularly when giving advice).

However, I’ll tend to use one or two, and — and this is the thing which bugs me — I won’t randomly remove vowels from stuff I am typing online, jst 2 mk it shrtr. For me this just adds to the reading difficulty for no appreciable benefit.

I will try not to judge a comment along the lines of…

LOL! Wnt 2 pub — gr8 nite out — rat (_o_)

…on this basis, because in informal communication, particularly on places like Facebook, I probably wouldn’t have been main audience this was aimed at, and it’s not exactly someone attempting to provide advice or more formal support in some way.

And then that brings me to swearing. While I frequently joke I do, I don’t actually buy into the cod-latin motto of Roger’s Profanisaurus (the ultimate swearing dictionary):

Swearwordum est maximus et sapiensRoger’s Profanisaurus

…”swearing is big and clever”. But nor do I think it isn’t big and clever. It’s all down to usage, and knowing what is appropriate in particular circumstances. The level of swearing I use in the blog I don’t think is particularly high, although I’ll piss, and shit, and throw in the odd fuck now and again, these tend to fall into my mental categories of ‘appropriate swearing’.

For me, appropriate swearing is:

  • When the swearword is the most appropriate term. For example, I feel the phrase “taking the piss” works better than “taking the mickey”
  • When the swearword is quoting direct speech.
  • To emphasise a point, or also to contrast a point by throwing in a seemingly incongruous swear word, you fucker

Obviously, what is the most appropriate term may well very according to the circumstances. I could refer to the same sort of thing in a number of different ways…

  • To one of my children: “Don’t step in the dog poo!”
  • To an official: “There is a problem with dog excrement in the park”
  • In relaxed informal conversation: “We nearly trod in the dog shit”
  • In relaxed informal conversation when I’m not so sure of the other person’s attitude towards swearing, I might use a milder “We nearly trod in the dog crap”.

I don’t see it as a decline in moral standards for newspapers to sometimes use swearwords. It’s interesting and it reflects the editorial stance of the newspaper, what they find offensive. I seem to recall (although I couldn’t swear to it) that The Sun had reported Ron Atkinson as saying that Marcel Desailly was a “lazy f***ing nigger”, whereas The Guardian had reported it as “lazy fucking n****r”, showing a significant difference in the bit they termed offensive.

FWIW, my opinion is that ‘bad’ language (i.e. swearing) isn’t bad at all when used appropriately but that there is little place for racist language (except that I think that it’s appropriate when talking about racism, as above).

Tom Hume has used an API to look at swearing in The Guardian. (Please note: his photo is ‘all rights reserved’: I specifically asked and received permission to use it)

swearing in the Guardian 1999-2008 (Tom Hume's flickr)

It appears that there has been quite a rise in shits and fucks reported since 1999 (shits appearing in nearly 0.9% of articles now — 0.9% is the top mark on the Y axis), although my favourite quote is from the guy who produced the image:

Wank is massively underperforming over the last decade, whilst cock is flat; Tom Hume: Tracking UK Liberal Indecency

But, and it’s a fairly big but, incessant swearing will switch me off just as quickly as block capitals. Again, this depends on circumstances, in the pub my own personal swearometer appears to crank up a notch or three, so I won’t judge language there, but in written text — blog posts, comments, and so on — then I tend to start judging, particularly if I feel the swearing has been used instead of punctuation and is not necessary in the context.

I had intended to try and find an example of this sort of thing to show you, but if you start searching for “fucking cunt” in google, you will find that quite a number of the results returned do not relate specifically to swearing. So I’ll just leave that. But hopefully you know the sort of thing I mean.

So there are a lot of ways that I will judge you based on not what you say, but how you say it. And, like I said, I’m far from being the only person who will do this. If you want your message to be heard, I’m not asking for perfection, but if you could have a reasonable stab at the following list, I’d be more likely to actually give your message due consideration.

  • Don’t type in block capitals
  • Have a reasonable stab at spelling, punctuation and grammar, although I don’t expect perfection
  • Don’t over-use txt-spk.
  • Don’t swear where it is inappropriate to the context, and don’t swear incessantly even if some use may be appropriate

I don’t expect perfection, but if you want me to take the time to read whatever it is, I expect you to put at least a little effort in…

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8 Comments to Mind Your Language

  1. The Goldfish says:

    April 13th, 2009 at 11:53 am

    I think the golden rule should be read over before you post. You can find the odd typo or grammatical errors in great works of literature, but if it makes sense to you when you read it over yourself, you’re probably in the ballpark.

    All the irritating errors are those where it seems unlikely someone read it over. One of the worst things you see with comments sometimes (not on my blog, but elsewhere) is where the whole thing is in caps except those letters which should be capitalised. So clearly the person had CAPSLOCK on, still managed to press SHIFT in the right places but was in such a terrific hurry, or was so fantastically idle that once they started, they couldn’t be bothered to go back, start again and make it legible.

    Either that or their CAPSLOCK key was stuck…

  2. duncan says:

    April 13th, 2009 at 8:14 pm

    From what I can tell, The Sun printed with both words asterisked:
    whereas the Guardian printed with neither:

  3. JackP says:

    April 13th, 2009 at 8:16 pm

    …ah well, either memory serves me incorrectly about which papers I saw it in, or the online version is not the same as the print version I saw. Just as well I did say I wasn’t 100% sure :-)

  4. chartroose says:

    April 13th, 2009 at 11:16 pm

    God, this is funny! You should attempt to publish this one, Jack. It’s the shit, IYKWIM.

    I am puzzled about one thing, though. What does IANAL mean? I try not to anal too often, myself.

  5. Shannon says:

    April 14th, 2009 at 1:44 am

    A friend and I were out to lunch recently and she informed me that she was unsubscribing to a mutual friend’s blog for this exact reason… the mutual friend never proofs and is so scattered with so many misspellings and typos and unclear thoughts in general that it was unreadable. I told her I’ve resorted to relying on the photos of this person’s blog for the same reason… can’t follow a single thought that was attempting to be expressed. It was always as if she wrote a 600 word post in 4 1/2 minutes while cooking a meal with the other hand and then hit publish without even glancing at it ever again.

  6. JackP says:

    April 14th, 2009 at 8:11 am

    Chartroose, haven’t seen IYKWIM before, but I think I’ve managed to decipher it, if you know what I mean.

    As regards the other ones, IANAL (and indeed you’re right, it sounds a little dubious) is ‘I am not a lawyer’. You should also be able to see the expansion of the acronyms/abbreviations used on this site by hovering your mouse over them… (at least, the ones with the dashed underline)

  7. Rob Warner says:

    April 14th, 2009 at 6:10 pm

    As far as I’m concerned, you’ve only communicated when the reader understands your message. Whilst you can’t cater for everybody having more than three brain cells, communicating without considering the likely audience, isn’t really communicating at all. In which case the only purpose served is to make the author feel better somehow.

  8. 1234test.com says:

    August 31st, 2011 at 2:50 am

    Queens University Blog…

    [...]When you know when doing your work you will do more than if you are completely without skills..[...]…

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